Russian Ark: visual travelogue through art and culture meditating on identity, history and time

Alexander Sokurov, “Russian Ark” (2002)

At last a film was made with just one take and a well-executed and visually gorgeous film it is too. “Russian Ark” is an affectionate journey through just over 300 years of Russian history, art and culture and a travel guide through the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, taking in a tour of the Winter Palace in particular. An unseen narrator (voiced by director Sokurov himself) has become a ghost through an unknown accident and is fated to haunt the corridors and galleries of the museum throughout its existence starting in the very early 1700s. He meets 19th-century French diplomat the Marquis de Custine (Sergei Dontsov) and together they trawl the museum buildings, seeing, meeting and sometimes interacting with people of the past and present. They are unintentional witnesses to some significant and not-so-significant events of Russian and St Petersburg history including Tsar Nicholas I’s reception of Persian diplomats come to apologise for a mob lynching of a Russian ambassador in Tehran and the siege of Leningrad (1941 – 1944). They watch the daughters of Tsar Nicholas II dance in the Winter Palace corridor and the Marquis himself takes part in a huge and extravagant ball to the music of 19th-century Russian composer Mikhail Glinka.

The film makes some references to the Marquis’s life: he was known to be very religious and was skeptical of Russian attempts to appear European and civilised. The Marquis and the unseen narrator provide a “plot” of sorts in which they comment on what they see and express opinions and feelings about Russian art and culture. Mildly critical comments about Russian people are made: their seeming reverence for the rule of tyrants, their penchant for trying to keep up with the West and copying the West on a grand scale, the notion that big is best where Russia is concerned. The question of what it means to be Russian is raised but as the film progresses the narrator and the Marquis end up carried away by the visual glories they see and the discussion of Russian identity as something distinct from or parallel with European / Western identity, however superficially conducted, melts away.

The roving camera becomes the film’s major character and the narrator is its voice; the film acquires a voyeuristic and even conspiratorial air as the camera glides, often unseen, through the Hermitage and the Winter Palace. The camera and the Marquis don’t try to hide – the Marquis often addresses people directly in spite of the narrator’s pleas not to speak to people – but watch people from behind windows, columns or other spectators. Viewers familiar with Russian and Soviet history may be reminded of the authoritarian, police-state surveillance aspects of past Tsarist and Soviet governments and present post-Soviet governments. The single-take structure of the film with its intrusive Peeping-Tom flow immerses the viewer in whatever the camera lens takes in; the viewer becomes part of the stream of images and ultimately a participant in the film’s proceedings. The Russian Ark, for which the Hermitage Museum is merely the physical bearer, turns out to be the Russian people and their artistic, cultural and historical heritage, worth preserving, remembering and passing down to future generations. By watching the film, viewers share in the responsibility of interpreting and passing on the best of Russian and Western art and culture to the future.

The flowing single-take format does have its disadvantages: its arbitrary route through the Hermitage assumes viewers already are knowledgeable about Russian and Soviet history and can make sense of what they see and why Sokurov chose to focus on some famous historical incidents and personalities and not others. Why Sokurov didn’t focus on some part of the construction of the Hermitage and the Winter Palace or of St Petersburg is a mystery since that could have told us something about the personalities of the Tsars and the power they wielded and about the nature of Russian society during the imperial Romanov period. There are significant events missing from the film: the 1905 Russian Revolution; the revolutions in February and October 1917 that respectively felled the Tsarist government and brought the Bolsheviks to power; the 1918 transfer of the Soviet government to Moscow; and the bombing of the museum during the city siege in World War 2. The format is very subjective: the immersion of viewers into the film sweeps them along and admits no resistance or criticism of Sokurov’s view of Russian history and culture. Even the Marquis near the end of the film is awed and impressed by what he sees and experiences, and admits that Russians are “European” after all. The film even dismisses itself as a historical drama: the Marquis early on talks about Russia being a theatre and Russians as actors, and this idea is picked up at the end of the film when hundreds of people attending the ball leave the building by going down an enormous staircase. People wanting a history lesson will be disappointed – they will know no more about Russian and St Petersburg history at the end of the film than they did at the begininng.

With the single-take structure, there will be untidy moments where edits are needed and errors in timing and pacing become apparent. Apart from one early scene where an actor appears to miss his cue with Dontsov waiting patiently behind a set of double doors, the action and pace are smooth, graceful and leisurely in keeping with the notion of plunging the viewer into Russian and European art and culture. Sokurov and Dontsov keep up their patter without missing a beat so to an extent the single-take form has been successful. The camera’s movements do not jar though it’s possible some viewers might feel nauseous after seeing the effortless way it pans around or circles objects and people.

Watching this film, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic and sad for the loss of Imperial Russia, especially when one considers the upheavals, the chaos, genocide, suffering and tragedies that followed in the Soviet period. A strong sense of time passing and erasing, diminishing or changing the meaning of events and artefacts from various historical periods can be felt. This is reinforced by the way the camera travels through the physical museum and history, backwards and forwards, in what’s meant to be a cyclical journey through space and time; some viewers may find the film repetitive in parts. Audiences need to know that the real Tsarist Russia, for all its wealth, flamboyance and exaggerated grandeur, was a harsh world for the majority of its subjects and had its share of invasion, famine, tragedy and mass killings. We need look no further than St Petersburg itself which was built on the labour of conscripted Russian peasants and Swedish and Finnish prisoners of war in the early 1700s. Perhaps Imperial Russia is best appreciated as a place to be visited in novels and stories by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Gogol, nicely sanitised according to individual preference, and never to be actually visited except by ghosts.

 

 

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